Mac's men today

Gerry DiNardo, offensive coordinator, tight ends and tack-les: College football analyst for Big Ten Network, owns and operates DeAngelos Restaurant, Bloomington, Ind.

Mike Hankwitz, defensive coordinator, secondary: Defensive coordinator, Northwestern.

Gary Barnett, quarterbacks and fullbacks: College football analyst, Sports USA Network.

Mike Barry, guards and centers: Athletic coordinator, Academy for Urban School Leadership, Chicago.

Brian Cabral, inside linebackers: Associate head coach/defensive coordinator, Indiana State.

Don Frease, receivers: Lives in Tennessee working as executive in business.

Oliver Lucas, running backs: Head coach Dupont Manual High Schools, Louisville, Ky.

Bob Simmons, outside linebackers: Head coach Boulder High School.

Ron Vanderlinden, defensive line: Inside linebackers coach at Air Force.

Something went missing from the Colorado football team between the 1989 and 1990 seasons, and coach Bill McCartney wishes he had recognized it earlier.

Maybe the road to the 1990 national title would have been a little less bumpy.

In 1989 the team had tremendous senior leadership and was fueled by the emotion of having dedicated the season to quarterback Sal Aunese, who died early in the fall after fighting stomach cancer. Those seniors were gone in 1990 and so was the rally cry.


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McCartney knew who he was as a football coach and he allowed his assistant coaches to do their jobs without micromanagement. He had high expectations and he shared his thoughts when he needed to, but he trusted the men who worked for him to handle their business and have their players ready at game time on Saturdays. Four of his assistants and one of his graduate assistants from that year went on to become college head coaches and two other members of his staff became high school head coaches.

Bill McCartney, coach of the 1990 national championship Buffaloes, hugs former player Eric Bieniemy at a team reunion in 2010.
Bill McCartney, coach of the 1990 national championship Buffaloes, hugs former player Eric Bieniemy at a team reunion in 2010. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

"My strength was to challenge, rally, motivate and encourage," McCartney said.

But three games into the 1990 season after starting 1-1-1 in what was a brutal nonconference schedule, the men who worked for McCartney that year saw him take the reins in a little tighter to steady the team and give it new direction. No one, not even McCartney, thought a national title was still a possibility at that point, but winning the Big Eight, beating Nebraska and Oklahoma and returning to the Orange Bowl for a second consecutive season were all still achievable goals. McCartney focused on them.

"In '89, the bus sort of drove itself," said Gary Barnett, who coached the quarterbacks and fullbacks in 1990 and became the offensive coordinator before the bowl game. "In '90 is when the real challenges surfaced. Even though we had the same players coming back in '90 from '89, it wasn't the same team because we had all these athletes and guys who didn't work as hard over the summer. Some of them had this sort of entitled feeling that you could just show up and be really good again. As a result of that, we found ourselves 1-1-1 and that team could have gone either way."

PLAYERS RESPOND

One of the pivotal moments of the season came before Game 4 at Texas. Former CU defensive line coach Ron Vanderlinden said McCartney packed the team into a small room and told them he didn't like what he was seeing from them. He saw doubt and fear in their eyes. A year earlier he saw nothing but confidence and resolve.

Despite starting 1-1-1 and receiving a heavy dose of motivation from their head coach going into the game, the Buffs still found themselves trailing the Longhorns on the road in second half. That is when Vanderlinden and other assistants watched some members of the offense respond to McCartney's challenge.

They ran onto the field during a timeout and implored the defense to get a stop with the Longhorns threatening to score.

A jubilant Bill McCartney is escorted off the field after Colorado defeated Notre Dame 10-9 in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1991 to cap an uphill climb to
A jubilant Bill McCartney is escorted off the field after Colorado defeated Notre Dame 10-9 in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1991 to cap an uphill climb to the national championship. (Ray Fairall / Associated Press)

The defense came through and the offense responded by driving to a touchdown when it got the ball back. Colorado scored 16 fourth-quarter points and won by a touchdown.

The Buffs had a new attitude and began to hone their focus.

"I've had the pleasure of working for Joe Paterno," Vanderlinden said. "Bill McCartney was easily the best football coach I've ever worked for. He had great vision and was an extraordinary football coach. Then he was also a great motivator. He could really get a team to play at their best, and he was a great recruiter.

"But, boy, he was a great motivator and he did a masterful job that year. The year before everything kind of just clicked and we had great leadership within the team. Bill needed to drive this team like a car with a manual transmission. He needed to pound the clutch and push the gears to get it going."

Two weeks later, the Buffs found themselves at the center of a firestorm of controversy after winning at Missouri when the officials lost track of the downs and the Buffs scored the winning touchdown on fifth down. McCartney admits he didn't handle the immediate aftermath well by focusing more on the terrible field conditions than on the historic mistake made.

The following week, McCartney found himself under fire for refusing to forfeit the win. Some used his religious convictions against him, asking how a spiritual man could be comfortable with a win earned in questionable fashion.

McCartney was growing used to the personal attacks by then. The McCartney family and its religious beliefs were mocked at times by some during the previous year when it was revealed that Aunese had fathered a child with McCartney's daughter Kristy.

"He had a tough personal go during that time," Barnett said. "To be able to navigate those waters as well as the struggles and challenges we were having as a team, to navigate all that and to end up the way we did, that's the mark of a special leader."

McCartney used the noise swirling around his program after the fifth down to unite those within it. He came up with the idea to wear all-black uniforms for the first time the following week at home against Iowa State. The players loved the idea and responded with the first victory of the season that wasn't decided in the fourth quarter.

"I think it rallied and it helped our kids have a lot more confidence in what we were doing," said Bob Simmons, who coached outside linebackers and now serves as head coach at Boulder High School.

The Buffs went undefeated in the Big Eight Conference that season, beating Oklahoma and Nebraska in back-to-back seasons for the first time in history.

With a rematch with Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl and another chance to win a national title looming, McCartney was confronted with the loss of offensive coordinator Gerry DiNardo, who was hired by Vanderbilt as head coach. It was a potential sinkhole in the middle of the road to history.

McCartney asked Barnett to attend a high school football game in Longmont in which a recruit was playing. During the game, McCartney calmly broke the news that Barnett was now the team's offensive coordinator and his first game in the job would be with the national title on the line for CU.

"I couldn't speak," Barnett said. "From that point on life was a blur."

Notre Dame stifled Barnett and the CU offense for much of the game, but the Buffs managed just enough in the second half to pull out the victory by the narrowest margin. But it almost ended badly.

McCartney narrowly avoided becoming one of the biggest goats in college football history late in the Orange Bowl.

He decided to punt the ball from his 47-yard line knowing there was a chance All-America return man Raghib Ismail might get his hands on it. McCartney told punter Tom Rouen to kick it as far as he could, hopefully through the uprights. Ismail fielded the punt at the 9-yard line and ran it back 91 yards for a touchdown, but officials flagged Notre Dame for clipping and the Buffs went on to win 10-9.

McCartney had dreams of being a coach since he was 7 years old. He studied every coach he met along the way and went out of his way to visit legends such as Kentucky's Adolph Rupp, Indiana's Bob Knight and Houston football coach Bill Yeoman. They took him to the mountaintop and he brought the Buffaloes with him.

"That team needed Bill McCartney," Simmons said. "You have to understand there were personalities on that football team. They needed the type of steadiness that Bill brought to the table. When you've got a lot of egos in the room, you really have to know how to manage it, and he did a fantastic job with that."

Kyle Ringo: ringok@dailycamera.com, on Twitter: @kyleringo